"But the blackened hills of Rhymney, I saw with childhood's eye" | Idris Davies
Through the 1950s and '60s a lively contemporary Welsh art scene was emerging with an iconography of the South Wales Coalfield as its hallmark. "Industrial Wales" was framed in the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain's annual Exhibition of Contemporary Welsh Painting and Sculpture.
Building on the new patronage opportunity of the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and supplemented by the energetic activities of voluntary and artist-led bodies, the burgeoning South Wales art scene nurtured both amateur and professional artists. The arts council's Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Welsh Painting and Sculpture showcased an energetic populist constituency for art practise, and South Wales now commanded the attention of artists and critics at the wider UK level.
Cultural populism was the order of the day, and a hallmark of the burgeoning South Wales artistic scene was the emergence of a popular industrial subject matter. Art historical claims were even staked out for a "Rhondda Group" of painters.
Many of the images in the current THE POETICS OF PLACE: INDUSTRIAL SOUTH WALES selection from the Newport Museum and Art Gallery permanent collections relate to this lively cultural moment: coal-miner, pit-head, slag-heap, miners-cage, steelworks, and terraced row: the iconography of industrial south Wales now became grist to the mill for the contemporary Welsh artist.
The populist South Wales constituency also attracted the enthusiastic attention of the London art establishment, with prominent painters such as Josef Herman, Julian Trevelyan, Carel Weight and L.S. Lowry acting as selectors for the annual arts council Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Welsh Painting and Sculpture. Some prominent British painters also visited South Wales and produced work engaged with industrial subject matter, most notably L.S. Lowry who visited South Wales regularly with his patron Monty Bloom who hailed from Ebbw Vale (see below for more on Lowry and South Wales). South Wales provided a fresh impetus for Lowry's later career with a new expansive and colourful vision, and in paintings such as Ebbw Vale, Abertillery and Bargoed Tip we may say that Lowry elevated the South Wales industrial landscape to an epic status.
Likewise Nan Youngman, previously connected with the Artists International Association, painted with a monumental vision in works such as Rhondda Saturday and Steelworks, Ebbw Vale (winner of the Ebbw Vale National Eisteddfod in 1951; the year of the Festival of Britain). Furthermore Nan Youngman established a strong south Wales connection, single-handedly running the annual Pictures for Welsh Schools Exhibition scheme which provided an important showcase for contemporary artists and helped establish a market for local public authority art purchases.
Future historians will no doubt take a formalistic cue from L.S.Lowry's fascination with the Welsh industrial spectacle. We would draw attention rather to the vital, populist cultural environment that was Lowry's host. In the final assessment we may perhaps view this phase of painting of the Welsh industrial landscape as a vital counterpart to the earlier cultural achievement of the Welsh industrial novel.
The exhibition THE POETICS OF PLACE provides a point of departure to explore the transformations of space and place in South Wales from 1945 to the present; decades of passage from Industrial to Post-Industrial South Wales.
The passage of transformation from the "industrial" to the "post-industrial" continues as a long term process of displacement and readjustment: the creative destruction or destructive creation of landscapes, in the constantly revolutionizing political economy of land, capital and labour. The promise of tomorrow.
Travelling around South Wales today, we are confronted by an uneven geography of development with a radically de-industrialised and less heroic landscape A landscape in which the fall-out of post-industrialism is overwhelming in its presence, provoking a fractured sense of absences and a hallucinatory excitement of the historical imagination.
THE POETICS OF PLACE exhibition finds its origins in a personal relfection upon the changing South Wales landscape. For a few years back I commuted to work across the South Wales coalfield to Ebbw Vale, often reflecting upon the changes in the valleys landscape from an industrial power-house of iron, coal, and steel to the new barrenness of a de-industrialized and silenced landscape. Corus steel-closures. The relentless transformations of modernity, where All that is Solid Melts into Air. The absence of once familiar landmarks - such as Ebbw Vale steelworks - provoking a peculiar sense of memory and feeling of presence.
In a reflex of historical memory I often mused upon my own virtual gallery of artists engaged with the industrial scene, recalling paintings of the South Wales industrial landscape that I had come to know through years of historical research: the sublime visions of Ebbw Vale of L.S. Lowry and Nan Youngman, Arthur Weaver's intimate Brynmawr, Heinz Koppel's playful Dowlais Top, and other artist's exploration of the poetics of place. A largely unknown history; all of this a world far removed from the canonized traditions of art history.
What engages us in the history of artistic practice in Wales in the post-'45 period is that in their focus upon the landscape artists chose precisely to avert their gaze away from the nostalgia of the pastoral towards the spectacle of the urban-industrial present. In this act lies the vital contribution of Wales to the history of Twentieth Century Art in Britain. We may perhaps view this phase of painting of the Welsh industrial landscape as a vital counterpart to the earlier cultural achievement of the Welsh industrial novel.
This moment of cultural populism highlights a period in which the South Wales industrial landscape was articulated in a shared "structure of feeling", in painting, poetry, prose, and even film. Whilst a heroic narrative of landscape and place - and labour - was in the making, this was arguably a period of critical transition, of the epochal decline of the coalfield. A transition that perhaps gave the shared social and cultural imaginary of "Industrial South Wales" its edge, with its shared sense of community, purpose, and perhaps, the passage of loss. From our own "post-industrial" present it is certainly the case that such representations of the industrial scene, with their sense of identity of place, connote a "historical past" that is now gone.
Landscapes of power
With "de-industrialization" well advanced, a post-industrial economic development strategy has been evident across South Wales for a matter of decades. The built environment is recast through a series of large - scale landscape transformations: land reclamation, road, retail park, business park, technium, country park, leisure, and housing developments.
A strange Faustian drama as former pit-heads, washeries and coal-tips disappear into new rural or new urban landscapes: sites in smaller tributary mining valleys are smoothed-over and transform almost organically into country parks with fishing lakes and cycle paths; sites in more central locations are colonized by leisure and retail complexes with their car parks, multiplex cinemas, stores and eateries - a new drive-by landscape of leisure.
From our own temporal embededness in this transforming landscape we confront the spectacle of post-industrial South Wales: an uneven geography of development, as regeneration produces or fails to produce its new landscapes of power. A passage of change that imbues us with a nostalgia perhaps for this earlier period of cultural populism and painterly vision, in which place and community were held in focus and celebrated in a shared social and cultural imaginary.
Merthyr Tydfil provides as good a locus as any, to start to explore today's transforming South Wales landscape. (A website currently notes Merthyr as undergoing Europe's largest land reclamation project). The landscapes of Cyfarthfa and Dowlais remain in transition.
A landscape beyond industry: towards a new matrix of land, capital and labour: a new condition of the "post-industrial", as the consciousness of production gives way to the dream of consumption: as agency is replaced by desire ?
Nevertheless, in many places, this remains a landscape in which we are embedded more in historical memory than one in which a narrative of future becoming may enliven us. An incongruous, somnambulant landscape in which memories of the past outweigh any promise of the future. The absence of once familiar landmarks, provoking a peculiar sense of memory and feelings of presence.
We inhabit a fractured state beyond the heroic imaginary of Industrial South Wales. Our de-industrialized mise-en-scène recalls the dystopian noir of a Blade Runner or a Brazil; yet one lacking the obvious elements of romance for a heroic denouement of the plot.
"The modern economy is likely to go on growing, though probably in new directions(...). The process of modernisation, even as it exploits and torments us, brings our imaginations and energies to life, drives us to grasp and confront the world that modernisation makes, and strive to make it our own. I believe that we and those that come after us will go on fighting to make ourselves at home in this world, even as the homes we have made, the modern street, the modern spirit, go on melting into air" | Marshall Berman (All That Is Solid Melts Into Air).
The process of de-industrialization is well advanced and a post-industrial economic development strategy has been evident across South Wales for a matter of decades. The built environment is recast through a series of large - scale landscape transformations: land reclamation, road, retail park, business park, technium, country park, leisure, and housing developments.
In a final act of commitment to building a better future we may note that when South Wales' last deep shaft mine at Tower Colliery, Hirwaun closed on Friday 25 January 2008, the miners leader and company director Tyrone O'Sullivan spoke of the worker's vision and plans to redevelop the site (- see BBC article here; and links on news coverage of the final march from the pithead here, and photographs here):
"a new development, with the creation of jobs and affordable homes, would be a fitting tribute. We're hoping 1,000 jobs could be created, maybe in retail, leisure and housing. There could be lakes there, and places to walk. I believe our company can leave a legacy to the community that will see today's toddlers able to find a job up in the valleys when they're 16 or 17, instead of having to leave the area. It will be the greatest tribute that the workers could give. We'll be leaving jobs, not statues."
Lowry's artist-patron relationship with Monty Bloom, a northern businessman who hailed from Ebbw Vale, had resulted in a new creative direction in the artist's later work. In a series of ambitious canvases of Ebbw Vale, Abertillery and Bargoed, Lowry evolved a new epic vision that marked a significant departure from his earlier habitus and the corpus of work engaged with the Northern scene.
There is a photograph of Lowry sat against a road barrier on the hillside above Bargoed, sketching the scene below. We found a footpath leading up from the foot of the viaduct, and after a fairly steep scramble the five of us arrived at the vantage point used by Lowry to study the valley scene below. Reflecting upon Lowry's act of painting, we surveyed the transformed landscape below.
In our discussion of Lowry's engagement with the South Wales industrial landscape, our concluding remarks explored Lowry's epic vision of the South Wales landscape and the theme of the industrial sublime. I posed the question of the inscription of labour within the landscape, for the foreboding coal-tip and pit-head complex that dominated and fixed the horizon of this working landscape stood as monuments to labour on a heroic scale. The physical proximity and shock of scale of industrialism experienced on a daily basis, provoking a utopian spirit of transcendance.
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